The third episode of The Orville pays homage to Star Trek’s love of addressing ethical issues—this time, about whether an alien society should be able to reassign a child’s gender. The episode tries to be sincere, and sometimes succeeds, but it ultimately becomes more about gender stereotypes than actual identity.
“About a Girl” opens where the previous episode left off, with Bortus (Peter Macon) learning that his egg has hatched into a baby girl. This supposedly only happens once every 75 years for Moclans (we later learn that’s not the case, but not in a way that actually affects the plot), and it’s considered a defect. So, Bortus and his mate Klyden decide to have their child undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Doctor Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) refuses to perform the procedure, believing that it’s wrong to treat female identity as a defect akin to a cleft palate, and both Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) and Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palacki) support her. However, Bortus argues that it’s a cultural decision that outsiders should not be making for his people.
This is where the episode is at its best: focusing on cultural autonomy in the face of something profoundly unethical. Mercer, in a private conversation with Grayson, ponders what they’d do if they had a baby born with a third foot. The normal response would be to remove it, since it goes against human body standards. But would that be seen as unethical to another species that normally has three appendages? The argument is just because humans view gender one way doesn’t mean a traditionally single-gender species has to. It’s a question without an easy answer, putting it in line with what can be science fiction’s best impulses.
That said, The Orville only tackles the topic only on its most basic level, and there are plenty of missteps that reveal the show didn’t fully research the topic it decided to tackle. Characters continually use the phrase “born female,” which is a reductive term that oversimplifies a complex issue, and no one is called out on it. The gender spectrum is never addressed, everything is presented as strictly male or female. We also learn that Klyden was reassigned male at birth, but we never get a sense of his identity as a result of his parents’ actions. Klyden speaks as if he’s happy with the decision, though mainly in terms of not wanting to be shunned by society; however, he’s never asked if he’d have named himself male if his parents hadn’t already done so. All in all, while the question may be nuanced, the show didn’t actually think through the implications of it in its setting or with its characters.
Most of the episode’s headway starts to fall apart once the Tribunal begins. Over the course of the episode, Bortus is convinced that their child should be allowed to name their gender identity in their own time, mainly thanks to a late-night screening of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, which was kind of cute. Since Klyden disagrees, which is an entirely realistic issue of two parents disagreeing about a medical procedure for their child, they decide to head to their home planet and hold a court hearing to decide the fate of their baby. Since no Moclan will defend Bortus’ case, Grayson steps in.
Oddly, Grayson doesn’t choose to focus on the right of the child to name their own gender, but rather on why women don’t suck as much as Moclans think they do—even though they have no real proof given they don’t let female babies come of age. The Moclans’ unsupported derision of women could’ve been interesting if Grayson had actually pointed it out, showing the hypocrisy behind assuming a gender is weaker without any proof, but she never does. Instead, she presents examples of aliens doing things that are contradictory to the Moclans’ preconceptions, mainly in showing that Alara (Halston Sage) can punch stuff and how stupid men can be through the example of Gordon (Scott Grimes).
Using stale, decades-old “men are idiots” and “women are stronger than you realize” tropes was a major step backwards for the episode. If the show had thought things through, Moclans wouldn’t have to be convinced that stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity don’t actually exist, because they wouldn’t know about them in the first place. Why would those exist in their society? They’re a single-gender species. Instead, they could’ve presented a female Moclan as a complete unknown, with an unknown value because their species never let one grow up. Then, when an actual female Moclan arrives (as one does at the end of the trial), their response might not have been sexist disgust, but actual shock. It just felt weird for the trial to conclude with a female Moclan having to stand up and defend her existence against misogyny, since that’s not the message the episode even started with.
In the end, the Moclans decide to reassign the baby’s gender and the crew of the Orville are powerless to stop it. Bortus and Klyden promise to love their child no matter what, with Bortus giving him a Rudolph doll as his first gift. Perhaps this means Bortus will be open to letting their baby name their gender in the future, but I have a feeling it’s probably never going to be addressed again.
The Orville clearly took a risk with this episode, discussing an issue MacFarlane is famous for botching in the past. Frankly, I was surprised that it worked at times, especially given the lack of research into the issue of gender identity. There were things the episode did that surprised and impressed me. But the stereotypically sexist payoff didn’t match the promising set-up, turning what could’ve been a strong conversation about gender identity into a couch gag on Family Guy.